With good reason, ours is an age in which the rule of law is a terribly important concept. In the United States, support for law—and support for law’s natural product: order—is near-universal. Not so with respect to support for democracy. Americans oscillate between Administrations (like the previous one) that seek to promote both law and democracy and Administrations (like the current one) that seek to promote stability and order: the key products of the rule of law. We agree about law’s virtues. About democracy, not so much.
This is curious, and deeply wrong. Law has no moral content: its rights and wrongs depend wholly on the content of the relevant legal rules. Democracy does have moral content: it says that, as between thuggish rulers and people in the streets of Tehran, the people in the streets are on the side of the angels. True, democratic governments are sometimes evil—but the concept of democracy places limits on those evil rulers; their rule is subject to a power they cannot control. Law is more a tool for evil rulers than a limit on them. As between democracy and law, I would think Americans of all political stripes could agree that democracy is a better and more consistent ally.
Perhaps that will be the lesson of what looks more and more like the Iranian Revolution of 2009. I certainly hope so. The American-style rule of law is deeply problematic; much about our legal system is nightmarishly wrong and unfair. But the twin ideas that elections matter and that governments do not fake election results—those are thoroughly good and right ideas, ones with which all of us, Bushian and Obamaphile alike, ought to agree. Maybe the rise of the Iranian street will produce such agreement. Again, I hope so.